PAKISTAN: Child abuse scandal exposes twisted justice system

The initial shock at the serial sexual abuse committed over a decade in three villages of Punjab Province of Pakistan has unfortunately given way to something even more tragic: an understanding of the true scale of sexual violence committed on children in Pakistan, something that far exceeds what has been unearthed, and something that appears inevitable in a land where there is no rule of law, and where injustice and cruelty reign.

Child sexual abuse cripples Pakistan, and its future. Cases go unreported as the subject is taboo and attracts the wrath of the religious clergy. Sexual abuse is perceived as shameful and hence hundreds of innocent children live their lives in the shadow, reliving memories and trauma of the assault. Worst of all, no matter how heinous the crime, few victims in Pakistan want to report the incident to the police, and this is the tragedy of the nation.

It is the Pakistani media has recently reported the abuse of at least 280 children by a gang of 15 men in three villages in eastern Punjab Province. The men recorded the assaults, and used the videos to blackmail the victims and extort money. Seven of the accused have been arrested, according to the police. Hundreds of residents have staged a protest, accusing the police and local politicians of protecting the gang members and ignoring the accusations. Some of the protesters have even clashed with the police, and dozens of people have been injured as a result, which includes several police officers.

Ms. Saba Sadiq, head of Punjab’s Child Protection Bureau, has, in a report in The Nation,described the case as “the largest-ever child abuse scandal in Pakistan’s history”. She has stated that a provincial inquiry announced by the chief minister “would be taken up at federal level to safeguard the children rights in future.”

Most of the victims are under 14, and copies of the videos have been sold in Hussain Khanwala Village in Kasur District for 50 Pakistani rupees (USD $0.49). Gang members apparently earned more by selling these videos through the Internet to paedophiles. These gang members would even blackmail the families of these children, extorting them to try and amass millions of rupees. In many videos, the victims are seen crying and begging for the torture to end. In one of the videos, a boy is shown being molested by 5 men in different locations. The boy was shown crying while a voice tells him to smile at the camera. The voice, apparently that of the molester, tells him that if he smiles he will be allowed to go. Most of the victims were intoxicated and drugged before being assaulted.

A testimony of one of the victims, who was nine years old when the gang raped him in 2006, has been reported in the press. It reads as follows:

“I was abducted and taken to a deserted house. I was brutally tortured when I offered resistance. Then they administered a spinal injection. I was raped multiple times by several men at gunpoint. I decided not to tell anybody. Six months later, the accused showed me the video clips when I refused to perform sexual acts on camera again. It was horrible.”

Many children have been blackmailed to pay their rapists or threatened that the videos would be sold or leaked. “They made the video of my son in 2011 and we have been paying the blackmailers since then,” the mother of one of the victims was reported to have said.

The police, however, are playing down the gravity of the matter. A senior police officer has been quoted saying that the group has been active since 2007 when the culprits were school students. He said most of the videos involved consensual sex between teenagers.

So far only six alleged abusers have been arrested, five of whom have been remanded in custody. The police officials, if history is any indicator, will make a show of an investigation as long as media interest remains. In time, there will be no follow-up and the matter will be brushed under the carpet.

The news is a reminder of a 1999 case, when reports of the murder of 100 children emerged. The accused, Javed Iqbal, surrendered himself to the police, admitting that he had sexually abused over 100 children and drowned them in acid afterwards. The police, in this case, have been unable to trace the 100 children back to their families, as almost all the victims were street children abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves. The number of victims in the present abuse ring is about three times more than the case of Javed Iqbal.
Both of these incidents have occurred in Punjab, the most populated province of Pakistan. The Punjab government has failed to apprehend the culprits though the crimes have been perpetuated for a decade.

In Pakistan, children less than 18 years of age are falling prey to sexual abuse at the ratio of 6 children per day, according to Sahil, an NGO working for the cause of street children and child sexual abuse. A study edited by Jyotsna Patnaik, titled Childhood In South Asia: A Critical Look at Issues, Policies, and Programs, states that 17% children from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, claim to have been raped. A recent survey by Sahil of 1,800 men in Pakistan has found that that a third believe that not only is raping little boys not a crime, it’s not even a bad thing to do. As a result, an estimated 90% of street children have been victims of sexual abuse at some point in their lives. A Save the Children report suggests that as many as one in 10 of children abused so are murdered by the men who abuse them.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2014, and the addition of Section 292 B of the Pakistan Penal Code, have made child pornography a punishable crime; the prescribed punishment is of imprisonment of not less than one year and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees. However, the law is not applied. So, there is no visible impact on the situation of children in the country. There has been little or no budgetary allocation for the various laws that have been passed in Pakistan’s provincial assemblies related to child rights.

The fact that the gang was only recently busted even though they have operating in the village for quite some time speaks volumes about the state of affairs in rural policing. How could the incident and rampant abuse evade police attention for so long?

It is obvious: the parents of the children were afraid of reporting the incident to the police knowing that the police would not respond. The police was quick to respond only after the incident caught media attention. The State is the constitutional guardian of its subjects it is incumbent by the State to safeguard the rights of its citizen especially the vulnerable.

The AHRC urges that, at least now, the government should take action and conduct an inquiry to clear the confusion surrounding the facts. The culprits should be investigated, prosecuted, and punished. Is that too much to ask of the Pakistan government?